Justice Department Takes Over Investigation of Eric Garner Chokehold Case

Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, left, at a news conference last year with Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham, who was fatally shot by a police officer in the Bronx in 2012. (PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Kauzlarich for The New York Times)
Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, left, at a news conference last year with Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham, who was fatally shot by a police officer in the Bronx in 2012. (PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Kauzlarich for The New York Times)

The Justice Department has replaced the New York team of agents and lawyers investigating the death of Eric Garner, officials said, a highly unusual shake-up that could jump-start the long-stalled case and put the government back on track to seek criminal charges.

Mr. Garner, 43, died in 2014 on a Staten Island street corner, where two police officers confronted him and accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, was seen on a video using a chokehold, prohibited by the New York Police Department, to subdue him. Mr. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for protesters around the country.

Federal authorities have been investigating whether officers violated Mr. Garner’s civil rights in his fatal encounter with the police. But the case had been slowed by a dispute because federal prosecutors and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials in New York opposed bringing charges, while prosecutors with the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department in Washington argued there was clear evidence to do so.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who as the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York oversaw the beginning of the federal inquiry before her appointment to Washington, has been considering for months how to proceed.

In recent weeks, the F.B.I. agents who have been investigating the case were replaced with agents from outside New York, according to five federal officials in New York and Washington. Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are no longer assigned to the case. It is not clear whether civil rights prosecutors from Washington will work alone in presenting evidence to a grand jury in Brooklyn and in trying the case if charges are eventually brought.

The officials who described the reorganization did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Mr. Garner’s death, followed by the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and several other high-profile deadly police encounters across the country, prompted nationwide protests over how and when officers use force, particularly against black men. Though the Justice Department has required police departments to stop unconstitutional practices and retrain officers, it has rarely brought charges against individual officers in deadly encounters.

To do so in the Garner case, prosecutors must persuade a grand jury that a crime occurred. Normally, that is all but guaranteed and an indictment follows. But Officer Pantaleo’s testimony helped persuade a state grand jury on Staten Island not to bring charges in December 2014. Any decision on charges in the federal case is probably months away, officials said.

The Justice Department and the F.B.I. did not comment.

Stuart London, a lawyer for Officer Pantaleo, said that he had maintained he never violated anyone’s civil rights. “This was always a simple street encounter where Officer Pantaleo utilized his N.Y.P.D. training to subdue an individual,” Mr. London said.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and William K. Rashbaum